My First IMEX America Experience

From the moment I landed in Las Vegas, IMEX was an adrenaline rush. On the first day, I somehow figured out my way through The Palazzo and Sands Expo. The two hotels are connected together, full of slot machines, stores and restaurants. I managed to grab a couple of cups of coffee before listening to two seminars, The Attendee Journey and Crisis Management in Tourism.

Elton John
Elton John and his million dollar piano

The show really began the next morning, when event planners met with hotels, destination management companies and convention boards. First, I attended a networking breakfast and presentation from Qatar. Then, I met with eight different convention & visitor bureaus (CVBs) and afterwards I schmoozed during happy hour.  In the evening, I was invited out by Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre to a dinner of steak and wine and then to an Elton John concert.

When I got back to my room, I was exhausted and promptly fell asleep. I woke up early again the next morning for another networking breakfast, this time with Mexico City. I went to another eight appointments, attended more happy hours, and afterwards wandered The Strip with my colleagues.

That night, I fell asleep early again, but on that morning I got breakfast in bed courtesy of Tourisme Montreal. That day, I met with the my last eight appointments and had a couple of happy hours. Then, I immediately boarded the plane back to California, arriving at 11pm.

The reason I attended this trade show was to pitch the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) to 24 different CVBs from around the world on behalf of The International Ecotourism Society.  The conference promotes the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in the tourism industry.  We create lasting partnerships that connect the ecotourism throughout the world. We also work to showcase each destination’s ecotourism successes and challenges. Since it began in 2005, more than four continents, including South America and Africa, have hosted the conference.

The Standout Conversations

There were a few conversations that stuck with me.  The first was when I met with the North America Director of the Catalan Tourist Board. She thought it was amusing that I lived had in Esparreguera and told me all about her little town. Eventually the conversation turned towards business.

“Sometimes our clients will ask us about our sustainability efforts,” she told me, “but it’s not the deciding factor.  Cost and value are what tourists care about most. Do you really think that more Americans are going to go on Spanish ecotourism tours based on this conference?” I smiled.

“Thirty years ago, ecotourism was only a buzzword.  As the oldest and largest ecotourism association in the world, TIES was there from the very beginning. Through our partnerships, conferences, social media networks and educational opportunities, we contributed to its prominence.  Now even the occasional tourist knows what it is.  The way I see it,” I responded, “sustainability in tourism is at the beginning stages of becoming mainstream. So, yes, this conference will give Spanish ecotourism initiatives global recognition.”

“Well one day I hope to see you in Esparreguera,” she said and smiled.

Now, I should explain the difference between ecotourism and sustainable tourism. Ecotourism is focused on protecting remote, pristine environments and that work with indigenous and/or traditional peoples. While sustainable tourism is focused on the current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts of a destination. Ecotourism is a subset of sustainable tourism. Both are important to TIES.

IMEX America
IMEX America

Nearly every person I met at IMEX told me about their own organization’s efforts and challenges with sustainability. For example, I had an interesting conversation with someone who worked in the aviation industry.

“If you’ve flown into Heathrow airport, you might notice that the plane will circle the airport at low altitudes several times before landing. This burns a lot of fuel. Not only because it’s in flight mode for longer, but also because it’s cruising at a low altitude. The aviation industry talks about it, but they’re not doing much,” he explained to me.

“Right,” I said, grabbing onto the topic. “Tourism promotes sustainability as a feel good thing to do, but really it is efficient business practices. For example, if airlines put pressure on the airports to be able to land exactly when they arrive, then planes would burn less fuel. This would then save the environment and decrease expenses while simultaneously increasing the customer experience. In order to have a successful business, you need to take care of your customers, your staff, and the communities and destinations in which you operate. Unfortunately, this is all seen as long-term investments, and many businesses prefer to see a short term return.

I had another great conversation with the Regional Director North America of Tourism Fiji, who really charmed me.  Perhaps it was her blunt manner. From the moment I took a seat, she immediately launched into selling mode.  I waited patiently before mentioning to her that we are a nonprofit. So we ask for a destination fee from the host, since we market the destination to the global ecotourism community.

“Normally I’d tell you to get out of here,” she said, “that there’s no way we’re paying you for your conference. However, the prime minister just unveiled a new tourism strategy that focuses on ecotourism and sustainable tourism. This seems like a great PR opportunity. I don’t want to put words in the prime minister’s mouth, but I think he’d be very interested in this event. Do you think I could grab an extra business card?”

Again, I smiled. Cross your fingers that I’ll get to go to Fiji.

Later, I had a third interesting conversation. As I pitched to the Sales Manager of Sedona, she told me how the city council will be voting whether to become the first city to have US National Monument status. She was particularly concerned about what it would mean for land ownership and mining rights. Since Sedona would be the first, they would become the guinea pig.

“Wow,” I remarked. “I want ESTC to be held in Sedona so that we can have a discussion about the impacts of this city having protected area status.”

I left this conference feeling tremendously inspired…and tired.

Last Words

Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas

Throughout the event, sustainability was a driving theme for IMEX. I was happy to join the Green Team, which encouraged buyers to ask exhibitors about their sustainability. (DONE). In turn, they encouraged exhibitors to come up with sustainable gifts and limit the number of brochures.  They also had bins for destinations of leftover supplies and promotional giveaways. In addition, it was great to know that the Las Vegas Sands Corporation is LEED Gold Certified, making it the largest green hotel/convention center in the world.

Altogether, my colleagues and I met with around 62 different countries.  Canada, Poland, Malaysia, Fiji, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and basically all of Central and South America seemed interested in the event.  Next steps will be to review their applications to ensure the country’s record of commitment to sustainable tourism.